selves to free radicals, detoxifying them. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, Shi said, it might not be getting at the root of some health problems.
"Antioxidants are good scavengers of free radicals, and it's certainly wise to have plenty of them circulating in your bloodstream," he said. "The trouble is that when free radicals start attacking tissue, it happens in a tiny fraction of a second, after which they are gone. But the acrolein that these attacks release survives in our bodies much longer, for several days at least, and its toxicity is well documented."
For example, acrolein has long been known to cause cancer when its concentration in the body rises, and not much is needed to be dangerous. When a person inhales smog or tobacco smoke, for example, the fluids lining the respiratory tract show an acrolein concentration of about a millimole – not much by measuring-cup standards, but still over 1,000 times more than usual.
"If you took a single grain of salt from a shaker and dissolved it in a liter jug, the water wouldn’t taste very salty," Shi said. "But even that would be more than a millimole, and that's much more acrolein than the body can handle at once."
Because a high concentration of acrolein also has been linked to neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinson's, Huntington's and Alzheimer's diseases – all of which progress slowly and resist treatment – Shi's team decided to see if the chemical was present in another slow-developing, seemingly untreatable condition: the degeneration of the spinal cord after initial traumatic injury.
"Unlike most other parts of the body, spinal cord tissue does not heal after injury," Shi said. "After the initial shock, it actually gets worse. Science has long been aware that some chemicals the damaged cells release are part of the problem, but no one has ever been sure which chemicals are responsible."
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